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Whitefoot v. Sheriff of Clay County

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

September 5, 2017

DAVID J. WHITEFOOT, and ELENA R. WHITEFOOT PLAINTIFFS
v.
SHERIFF OF CLAY COUNTY, DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court issued a number of Orders in this case disposing of the majority of the Plaintiffs' claims. The Court's most recent Memorandum Opinion [119] outlines the Plaintiff's remaining claim that is scheduled to proceed to a jury trial on September 18, 2017. The Plaintiffs' sole remaining claim is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against Clay County Mississippi, and several Sheriff's Deputies in their official capacities, for an alleged constitutional violation. Specifically, the Plaintiffs' claim is a Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim arising under the Fourth Amendment for an unauthorized entry on the Plaintiffs' private property by a Clay County Sheriff's Deputy to serve civil process at the Plaintiffs' residence. All of the Plaintiffs' other claims, including all of their state law claims, were dismissed by other Orders of this Court. See Orders [92, 108, 110, 118].

         The County Defendants filed a motion [141] requesting summary judgment in their favor on the Plaintiffs' final claim. The Plaintiffs filed a Response [151, 152] and the County filed a Reply [153] making this issue ripe for review.[1]

         Factual and Procedural Background

         As previously noted by this Court, the Plaintiffs contend that a Clay County Sheriff's Deputy intruded onto their property to serve civil process. According to the Plaintiffs, their house is surrounded by thirty-two acres, and is approximately 200 yards from the road, the entrance to which is blocked by a locked chain. “No trespassing” signs were posted along the driveway to their house. In order to approach the house, the Sheriff's Deputy had to park his car at the locked entrance, climb over the locked chain, and walk 200 yards before reaching the Plaintiffs' house, climbing up onto their porch, and knocking on the door.

         The County Defendants now request summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' claim by arguing, inter alia, that the Deputy's actions were authorized under state law, committed pursuant to implied consent and custom, and reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The County Defendants also dispute the facts underlying the claim.

         Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs summary judgment. Summary judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

         The moving party “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted).

         In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the non-movant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1993); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

         Discussion and Analysis

         At the outset, the Court notes that the County Defendants have now advanced, for the first time, another version of the relevant facts from Deputy Williams' point of view. Deputy Williams' version of events directly contradicts the Plaintiffs' version, specifically with respect to the gate and approach to the Plaintiffs' residence and other circumstances surrounding the service of process at issue in this case. Of course, at this summary judgment stage, the Court must construe these disputed, material for the reasons noted below, facts in the Plaintiffs' favor making summary judgment inappropriate.

         In addition, the Court notes that the County Defendants' main argument is that the Deputy's intrusion onto the Plaintiffs' property was “directed” under state law and that consent was given through an “implied legal privilege or license”. This argument is premised on the idea that there is a common custom or practice under common law that allows Sheriffs to intrude on private property for the “legal” purpose of serving civil process. Inexplicably, the County Defendants then argue that the Plaintiffs have failed to bring forth any evidence of an official policy or custom that is the moving force behind their alleged constitutional violation.

         The County Defendants remaining arguments are premised on the Deputy's newly advanced version of facts. Specifically, that his common practice was to post a note at the entrance to the Whitefoot property alerting them to his need to contact them, and that only after obtaining additional consent, did he make further entry onto the ...


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